Few churches were built during the English Commonwealth, despite it being that brief triumph of high puritanism. Late summer, KP and I went to see one of them. It’s officially redundant but kept open for its historical and architectural rarity. It involved turning sharply off the busy A66 near Brougham and trekking through several fields in the rain, but the end result was well worth it. Although it replaced a medieval chapel, itself built upon monastery dedicated to St Ninian (hence the name), we have here a mid-seventeenth century church completed in 1660. Amazingly, meddling Victorians did not feel compelled to ‘improve’ it. The place has little aesthetic glory: the whitewashed walls, the excessive dark oak carving, the plain windows and simple plan are all wonderfully practical. Even the altar, the highlight of Anglican worship, is a mere table. The most impressive furnishing has to be the pulpit with its sounding board, a kind of mini roof against which the preacher’s voice would echo. Even this is essentially practical; a quiet preacher without a microphone must still be heard. 

I’ve previously blogged about soaring gothic cathedrals and exquisite classical chapels. Apart from its age, why does this structure warrant a blog entry? Well here is a church without distraction. Even the central altar dare not detract from the pulpit’s proclamation; it is a place designed to hear the Bible preached. No fancy windows, no architectural flurries, few light-hearted carvings or eccentricities. I dare say modern churches are more comfortable and certainly more convenient to access, but this beautiful stone flowering of puritan spirituality is a salient rebuke to we who worship in more commodious premises. A good church is not necessarily the one with the finest music, the busiest programme, the fullest membership nor the most youthful congregants. It is that church which primarily hears God’s word and acts upon it, in season and out. Architecture is more than just a means to and end, a list of planned actions, a paper record of a mental idea. It communicates to us truths and beauty beyond the stones and furnishings.